Teaching Better Communication Skills in Science Courses

In the wake of the recent U.S. presidential election, scientists are redoubling efforts to communicate the importance of science to society. Part of such an effort must be to train the next generation of scientists to be more effective communicators than my generation was. For some years now, there has been a growing movement to improve communication of science. Courses and programs focused on teaching scientists and science students to be better communicators have been implemented at a few institutions of higher learning (for example, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stoney Brook University). Some science societies (AGU is a great example) also are sponsoring keynote talks at conferences on science communication as well as workshops and webinars that teach members about new communication tools and practices.

Progress has been slow, however, and many science students still receive little, if any, training in science communication. At best, undergraduate and graduate students may be given class assignments that provide training in traditional modes of scientific communication—writing a scientific report or giving a conference talk, for example. Although such skills are necessary for someone to succeed in a scientific career, new skills involving modern communication technologies are increasingly required of science professionals. Furthermore, some experts say that scientists wishing to inform the public about the importance of their work must go where the consumers of science information hang out: social media (Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat) and media-sharing platforms (YouTube, Instagram, Vine). To do so will require 21st century communication tools and knowledge of how to use them. Those who acquire such skills early will be at an advantage later in their careers—an ability to communicate with a diverse audience may even make a difference in getting a job. More broadly, a large cohort of trained scientist communicators can help counter anti-science and pseudo-science movements, which threaten the way science and scientists are perceived by policy makers, the media, and the general public.

Of course, not every science professional can or should become a highly visible communicator on the order of Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. That level of participation and visibility is not what I am talking about. Instead, I’m suggesting that we raise the overall communication skill level of students just enough so that when they must interact with policy makers or the general public as scientists, they can do so more effectively and confidently. One way to encourage and train students to communicate science is to make learning communication skills part of science courses. In addition to the typical course material, students may be given assignments that help them become better communicators. They might create a talk for the general public; an infographic about an important scientific issue; or a video about a species, habitat, or process covered in the class material. The idea would be to introduce students to 21st century communication methods as well as to begin their training in how to effectively engage audiences outside the scientific community.

So, how might this work in a science class?

Recently, I was asked by a colleague, Dr. Tracy Quirk, at Louisiana State University to speak to her class about how to make videos to share science. The course is called “Plants in Coastal Environments”, which covers the distribution and ecology of plants growing in coastal wetlands and adjacent habitats. The course is taught in conjunction with a university-wide program, Communication Across the Curriculum, which endeavors to enhance students’ communication skills in four areas (speaking, writing, visual, and technological). The course must focus on two of these four communication skills and create class assignments that address the requirements for those selected modes. For example, to demonstrate visual skill to communicate discipline-specific information, students might create a video or some other sophisticated visual product. In a communication-intensive course, a portion of the final grade must reflect communication-based work.

One of the class assignments for this particular class was to select a plant species studied in the course and make a video about it. There were about twenty students, who worked in pairs to design and produce a video about coastal plants such as Avicenna germinans (black mangrove), Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass), or Taxodium distichum (bald cypress). Early in the semester, I gave an hour lecture in which I covered some basic information about planning, filming, and editing a video—enough to help the students avoid common filmmaking mistakes and to give them a few ideas for designing their video projects. The students then worked on their video assignments through the following weeks, many filming parts of their video during class field trips to the coast of Louisiana or, for graduate students, during field trips to their research sites.

I again visited the class near the end of the semester when the students presented their completed videos. I was really impressed by the results. The videos were interesting and told intriguing stories, for example, about how a species adapts to the wetland habitat or the relationship of the species to a broader environmental issue such as the BP oil spill. Each video was required to include some data from the literature relevant to the species, and all the student videographers were able to weave that information into their stories. Overall, I could see that they had paid attention to the suggestions I made in my lecture. Most avoided the novice mistakes I often see in first-time videos. Every video was rated by each student, which provided peer feedback on which aspects were good and which could have been done better. What stood out to me was how much more appealing a video was when a student appeared on camera and told a more personal story or impression to introduce their topic. This approach was engaging and quickly grabbed the viewer’s attention. The other thing I saw was that the students came away from the experience with a better appreciation of what it takes to be an effective science communicator. And that, folks, is an important insight for someone who plans to be a science professional.

Below are two of the videos created by students in this class (direct links to videos here and here):

In summary, by emphasizing the use of communication tools such as video in science class assignments, educators can help raise the overall communication skill level of students and better prepare them to compete in the 21st century. As I said above, the goal is not to create an army of Carl Sagan clones, but simply to help future scientists be a bit more engaging and informative in their interactions with the lay public. A little bit of training in communication can go a long way toward improving the overall level of performance when a scientist is called upon to be interviewed by the news media, to testify before Congress, or to give a public lecture about science.

If you are a science educator and are interested in learning more about how to teach better communication skills or if you are a student wanting to acquire those skills, there are many tools and resources available (for example, see the AAAS site or the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).

Use Animation to Tell a Story about Science

Telling stories about science can be fun and rewarding, but not always easy to accomplish with video. Animation software can help us tell our stories in a way that is appealing both visually and emotionally. Animation can be an especially good option when live action is difficult or impossible to film. You can let your imagination go wild in an animated film. The laws of physics can be suspended. Time can be compressed or expanded. The action can take place on Earth, on a distant planet in the Andromeda galaxy, or in an imaginary world populated by talking tomatoes. The hero can be a human or, just as easily, an animal or a machine. Characters in a story can have ordinary traits or be imbued with magical powers. The possibilities are endless.

Animation can come in handy telling stories about science or scientists. With an animation, a science filmmaker has much greater freedom to present a concept or to share a particular viewpoint. For example, you might want to show how an atoll develops over millennia from an underwater volcano (see video below), but there are some aspects that cannot be filmed easily. Using an animation to illustrate the different stages in atoll development, for example, lets the filmmaker depict geological processes that are too slow to film—and simultaneously makes the entire process easier to visualize. Basic animations like the ones in Birth of an Atoll can be created in PowerPoint.

Don’t want to have a human narrator or protagonist in your science video? With an animated film, a filmmaker can build a story around a non-human character with very human thoughts and feelings—one that appeals to a broad audience. A great example is the Disney-Pixar animated film, WALL-E (see movie trailer below), which features a lonely cleaning robot on a garbage-filled and lifeless Earth who falls in love with EVE, a more advanced robot sent to scan the planet for signs of life. The film quickly draws you in and makes you root for the little robot. Many things happen in the film that are far-fetched, but are readily accepted by the viewer. And the film gets across a message about what might happen to the Earth (and to the human race) if we aren’t careful. Telling the story from the viewpoint of a sentient machine helps the audience see, through other eyes, where rampant consumerism, corporatism, and human reliance on technology might lead. This approach works because the viewer becomes emotionally invested in the story and its characters and is thus more receptive to the underlying message.

Of course, the production of WALL-E required a vast team of scriptwriters, designers, animators, sound specialists, and more. However, you don’t need an army of professional animators to create a short film to illustrate a scientific concept or to tell a story. As I mentioned above, simple animations can be produced in PowerPoint. And for more sophisticated animation, there are a number of animation software packages that are available for both professionals and non-professionals. However, the learning curve for these applications is usually steep. And to create comic-type animations, you need some serious drawing and design skills.

What’s needed is something a bit more user-friendly. A few years ago, I discovered  MotionArtist, a Comic Animation software by SmithMicro and tried the beta version of the software to create a graphic story (Brown Marsh Apocalypse). It’s been upgraded since then, with several improvements and bug fixes. This software basically lets the user create story panels (like the ones in a cartoon), import media and then add motion to individual on-screen objects as well as to sequence everything in a timeline to tell a story. MotionArtist was designed primarily for comic artists to import their illustrations and then to animate the artwork, converting it to digital format for posting online. However, use is not limited to this narrow purpose. The import function also lets the user bring in images, video clips, and audio tracks—and these can be sequenced to tell a story—in much the same way movie editing software works to sequence video clips. Layered Photoshop files can also be imported—as a composite or as individual layers, which can then be individually animated. The screenshot below shows the MotionArtist workspace in “Director view” (click on the image to see full view).


In the timeline (at the bottom of screen), the user creates scenes to build a storyline. Each scene contains one or more panels. A “camera view” lets the user pan across panels or zoom in or out of a panel. The scene pictured above contains three panels, the size and shape of which can be customized with shape-drawing tools. The top-left panel contains an imported video clip. The top-right panel contains a photo and a word balloon. Word balloons are easily created and animated, allowing the user to produce conversations by the characters in the story. The bottom panel contains a background photo and several individual objects (images of plant stems and snails) that were imported separately and that can be separately animated. For example, I can have a sequence in which the snails are moving up or down the plant stems. Each imported object or panel is represented in a track, stacked in the timeline. Stop points (like keyframes) are used to set the timing for each track. I wanted to add some background sound and so imported an audio file of waves lapping on the shore (this audio track is the top-most track in the timeline). The user can play the working files back in real time, which helps in editing. Once the animation is completed, the user can preview the HTML5 file online in a browser window or export as an interactive HTML5 file or as a video file.

To relearn how to use the software and examine the various features that might work with my media, I used MotionArtist to 1) illustrate a biological process and 2) tell a graphic story. I first tried to animate a leaf falling from a tree canopy to the forest floor where it fragments and decays (see video below). I used only four photographs to create this animation. You can see this brief animation below. In a future tutorial, I will show how I used MotionArtist to animate the leaves.

I also wanted to create a longer animation that told a story….one that would require me to use more of the tools and features of MotionArtist. I decided to do a sequel to the Brown Marsh Apocalypse and tell a new story about how climate change may affect coastal ecosystems in the Mississippi River Delta. Warmer temperatures during the past few decades have allowed the spread of tropical trees (called mangroves), which are replacing salt marsh grasses. How will such changes affect the coast? The tale of this environmental change is again told from the viewpoint of a marsh snail who was the hero of the previous video. This story follows Perry on a quest to find out how climate change may change the snails’ home and way of life. As you’ll see in the video below, I was able to tell the story with mostly photographs and text balloons.

In conclusion, I had a lot of fun playing around again with the MotionArtist application. I found this latest version of MotionArtist relatively easy to use, although some tasks took a bit of trial and error to figure out. As the examples I’ve shared here illustrate, animation software can be used effectively to demonstrate a scientific process or to tell a story about science…and it need not require artistic skills that the scientist videographer lacks. All it takes is imagination and the ability to visualize the story you wish to tell or the process you wish to convey.

Scientists Should Share Their Stories: More Important Now Than Ever

On November 9, I woke up to a new world—a world that seemed more uncertain, more dangerous, and more hostile to logic and facts than existed just a few hours before. I’m referring, of course, to the recent U.S. presidential election. What this change in administration means for those of us in science is unclear. But many in the scientific community are worried about their jobs, their research funding, science literacy, the environment, and many other things. It’s taken me several days of reading and thinking about the potential impact of the election on science to get to a point where I can move forward.

In this post, I’d like to offer some thoughts about moving forward and emphasize the role of video as a powerful tool for scientists to communicate about the important work they do. Since I started this blog in 2012, I’ve written about many aspects of video-making and why video is so effective as a communication medium. I feel now, more than ever, that the scientific community need to make their voices heard; and they need to use 21st century communication tools such as video and social media if they want to reach beyond their ivory towers…and be heard.

A Disturbing Trend

For me, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the campaign rhetoric was the way in which facts were ignored and conspiracy theories were embraced. When science was mentioned, it seemed that opinions based on falsehoods were accepted as facts, and facts (climate change, for example) were dismissed as hoaxes. This, despite all the efforts of government science agencies, science societies, and individual scientists to debunk false claims about climate, vaccines, evolution, and other politicized topics and to communicate the importance of credible science to society.

Just as disturbing is the message these actions send about how the scientific community may be viewed in the future. Scientists have traditionally been viewed by the American public as trustworthy (4 in 10 Americans express a high degree of confidence in the scientific community) and the scientific enterprise as essential to society (9 in 10 Americans agree that science and technology will create more opportunities for future generations) (NSF Science and Engineering Indicators 2016). But when our country’s leaders dismiss credible scientific evidence in favor of quackery, they are signaling that the sources of that evidence (scientists) are not to be trusted and that science is not important to the future of the country.

The Post-Truth Era

The scientific community will face some big challenges in the next few years—not the least of which will be countering anti-science and pseudo-science movements, which will be emboldened by the outcome of the election. We’ve already seen the rise of fake news sites on Facebook, with speculations about how they may have influenced the election. The public engagement with false stories on Facebook skyrocketed during the latter months of the campaign. Fake news reported on sites that made up stories about the candidates (e.g., the Pope endorsed Trump; Clinton sold arms to ISIS) outperformed real news. Such movements are fed by the larger political culture in which debate is won not by the facts, but by appeals to emotion. Factual rebuttals are ignored, while falsehoods are repeated ad nauseam.

This cultural shift has prompted the coining of new words that encapsulate the way “truth” is viewed. For example, the Oxford Dictionary has just announced its word of the year: post-truth, which means “as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief”. As explained on the dictionary’s website, the “post” part of the term doesn’t mean “after an event” such as in post-war, but instead refers to a time when the concept is no longer relevant. In this case, the concept that is no longer relevant is the truth. Stephen Colbert had earlier introduced a word with a similar focus: truthiness (defined as ‘the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true’).

These new words illuminate a disturbing phenomenon, on broad display during the campaign—one that scientists (and science communicators) will find difficult to counter. I say difficult because what scientists deal in is the truth, and they are flummoxed when scientific facts are ignored in favor of myths or when the honesty of science practitioners is questioned. How do you counter someone who refuses to acknowledge hard facts or who questions the motivations of scientists?

Don’t Just Inform, Engage

One response to expressions of disbelief in scientific evidence is to double down on the facts and data, as if more scientific evidence will shatter misguided opinions. However, that knee-jerk reaction doesn’t work. This deficit model of science communication has been mostly discredited as ineffective (i.e., giving people more information does not necessarily change their minds). Credible scientific data will influence only those who are receptive to it (and seek it out); however, scientific evidence alone won’t budge those who are emotionally tied to a particular position. If people are unswayed by facts, then scientists and science communicators must pay attention to people’s opinions and attitudes about scientific topics. This idea is not new, of course. Science communicators have been saying for some time that it’s important to do more than just inform; it’s necessary to engage people emotionally and on a personal level. That doesn’t mean abandoning scientific evidence….it means developing messages that resonate with people on an emotional or personal level.

One person who does this well is Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist:

We clearly need to continue explaining science to the public, but in a way that captures people’s attention, acknowledges their concerns and personal beliefs, and sustains the public trust in the scientific enterprise. Science agencies, societies, and organizations must continue to serve as clearing houses for objective science information and continue to challenge claims unsupported by scientific data. But what can you, an individual science professional, do?

Tell Your Story

One way you can help is to tell your story about how you conduct science or why you think your work is important to society as a whole. By telling stories, you can help the average person, who has never met a scientist, understand what we do and why we do it. Most scientists are hard-working, dedicated people who are passionate about their work. Their stories are rarely heard by the general public, though, but they would go a long way toward putting a human face on science and making an emotional connection.

There are many ways to tell your story. You can write about your desire to protect our natural resources or to find a cure for a deadly disease and post it on your website, on LinkedIn, or on a social media outlet. Or you can film yourself doing field research in a rainforest or conducting an experiment in your laboratory and explain what motivated you to study that particular subject. These don’t have to be full-blown memoirs or documentaries. A short blog post on Facebook or LinkedIn can convey a lot about you and your scientific passions. An increasing number of scientists and science students are sharing their research with Tweets, sometimes accompanied by a video clip. Such brief messages require little time to craft and post. A video clip attached to a Tweet can show the organism or habitat you are studying or illustrate how and where scientists work.

The point is to convey information about science and scientists without lecturing or challenging people’s personal beliefs. People don’t like to be lectured or to feel they are being talked down to or that their strongly-held beliefs are being questioned. Instead, show that you are excited to share your science with them….that you want them to share in the joy you felt when you discovered a new species, for example, or developed a new test to detect a deadly disease. Find common concerns between you and your potential audience and make the point that you are both seeking the same outcome (food security, better medical treatments, stronger economy, more jobs, cleaner environment). Then you can explain how your science will help make that happen. In telling your story, don’t be afraid to show your enthusiasm, curiosity, determination, or excitement about your research. Even if they question your scientific conclusion, they will appreciate your passion for your work and the integrity with which you conducted it.

Here are a few more ideas for making an emotional connection:

  • Share your joy about doing science.
  • Describe what you like most about being a scientist or your particular science discipline.
  • Talk about a challenge that you faced and how you overcame it.
  • Describe a failure and what you learned from it.
  • Show where you work (laboratory or field) and explain what you like about it.
  • Demonstrate your passion for your scientific topic and why you think it is important.
  • Describe how your curiosity led you to a discovery.
  • Talk about scientific integrity and how you strive to avoid bias.
  • Point out the challenge of finding sufficient funding to conduct your research.
  • Show how your research is helping a local community cope with a health or environmental issue.
  • Have citizens, resource managers, farmers, doctors, or other end users of science information describe the importance of your research to them.

Use Video To Connect With People

I think that one of the best ways to engage people is through the use of video. With video, you can more easily reach people who don’t have the time or patience to read a long essay. You can also more easily show your passion or other motivating force in a video. Yes, you can write about how passionate you are about coral reefs or mangrove forests, but actually seeing and hearing you express your feelings is much more effective and memorable. By showing your human side, you will automatically connect with people. By describing your successes and failures or what drives you to spend 12 hour days in the laboratory, you appeal to people’s fundamental emotions. People will recognize that you are not the arrogant know-it-all that they expected. When you develop a rapport with people, they become more receptive to your science information. And many people are now looking for science information in the form of video; YouTube is touted as the second largest search engine. Why not take advantage of this trend?

According to the NSF report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2016, only 46% of Americans have a good understanding of the process of scientific inquiry (how to conduct an experiment, for example). There are many ways to use video to inform the public about science and the scientific method. Here’s a nice example of a video that shows how tropical ecologists conducted a study of frogs, including the logistical challenges they faced:

The above video provides a glimpse into how scientists formulate a scientific question, design a study to answer the question, and then to conduct the study and analyze the results. This information is provided in a way that is interesting and personable and makes the point that scientists are driven by a strong sense of curiosity and a desire to understand how the world works.

There are many other great examples of videos that explain science, celebrate science, and defend science. Most are freely accessible on media-sharing sites and generally explain science in a way that the average person can understand. As I’ve tried to convey on this blog and website, making a video is no longer something only professional filmmakers can do. Anyone with a smartphone and an inexpensive movie-editing app can create an effective and compelling video. I hope more science professionals take advantage of these and other technologies to share their knowledge with the world.

Moving Beyond 2016

If you’re like me, you’ll be glad when this year comes to an end. It’s been stressful, to say the least, especially the past two weeks since the election. But where do we go from here? Those of us in science know how important the scientific enterprise is to our personal health, our environment, our economy, and our way of life. However, we’ve not done a great job of sharing our science with those outside the scientific community or explaining why science is important to society. This situation is slowly changing, but there remains a lot of resistance. I’m repeatedly told by colleagues that they don’t have time or they don’t see the benefit of communicating beyond the traditional outlets of science journals and conferences. They also express disinterest in using social media. I think it’s becoming clearer to everyone, though, why we should be concerned with informing and engaging the public, the media, and policy-makers.

To avoid feeling helpless in the face of uncertainty, I’ve tried to think of positive ways to move forward. Writing this blog post has helped me process some of the things that bothered me about the campaign and to think about ways to help fellow scientists who are wondering what they can do. I think that by simply telling our stories as scientists, we can begin (or continue) a conversation with the public. By showing our humanity, we send the message that we are not all that different…that we have similar concerns and questions about the world and are seeking ways to make the planet better for everyone. Communicating effectively is not easy, however. If you are considering engaging the public, sharing your experiences as a scientist through social media or on media-sharing platforms is a great way to get started.

More information about and tools for communicating can be found at the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

How to Improve Your On-Camera Delivery in Science Videos

Picture this scenario:

A middle-aged scientist in a white lab coat is speaking on film about his research on cancer. He’s sitting in a well-equiped laboratory and looks very authoritative. The camera gradually pans from a broad view of the room to focus in on the scientist. He begins by saying, “I’m really passionate about my work and want to share my findings with you in this video.” The only problem is that this cancer researcher does not look or sound passionate! Far from it. Instead, he sounds like a robot. He speaks in a monotone, does not smile or show any other facial expression, uses no hand gestures, sits stiffly and does not make eye contact with the viewer (his eyes are looking down or off camera). Things don’t get any better as he continues to explain the details of his research. 

Now, I can sympathize with this guy because this is how my early attempts at making videos about my research looked and sounded. I’ve improved since then, but still find it really difficult not to come across on camera like Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy in the original Star Trek series). Spock had difficulty showing emotion due to his Vulcan ancestry.

So what’s our excuse?

I think there are three basic reasons why some scientists come across on camera as being stiff and robotic: personality, training, and fear of the camera. People who are naturally gregarious or funny come across well on camera, but someone who is introverted may seem stiff or robotic. It’s possible to go against your natural demeanor, but you will likely find it difficult. I’m a naturally reserved, quiet person and feel terribly awkward when I try to be more extroverted. Also, I have to fight the years of training and experience talking to an audience of scientists, during which I cultivated a demeanor of calm confidence and authority. My talks at conferences and in seminars have been successful because those audiences expected a serious, academic delivery. But what works for an audience of scientists can be a detriment on camera. My serious, authoritative demeanor could be misinterpreted as arrogance or just a nerdy attitude. In addition, the camera not only adds ten pounds to your apparent body weight, it drains your energy. Consequently, it’s necessary to be more personable and to raise your energy level when being filmed above that normally used with a live audience. If you are like me and have a more reserved demeanor, you will have to work much harder than your colleague who is naturally gregarious and likeable.

Also, many people—even experienced speakers—freeze up when the camera is turned on them. They get that “rabbit in the headlights” look on their faces, and their bodies seem to turn to stone. Whenever a camera was turned on, I found it difficult to gather my thoughts and speak coherently. This reaction is a bit like stage fright and can make you look like someone with “Stuck in Their Heads” syndrome. Extreme self-consciousness is the culprit here.

After watching many, many videos made by science professionals (or videos in which a scientist appears), I realized that there were quite a few people out there with the “Stuck in Their Heads” problem. I’ve wanted to make a video tutorial about how to improve on-camera delivery, but put it off because I did not think I was the best person to tackle this topic. I thought it was better to hear tips about on-camera delivery from someone who does it well. However, it finally occurred to me that people might want to hear how a scientist with this problem has faced the problem and eventually improved.

In the video below, I briefly explain what I think are the main problems someone faces when trying to speak on camera and a few ideas of how to overcome them (direct link to video).

As you saw, there are several ways to improve your on-camera delivery if you are having problems. I focused on the most common issues and how to overcome them. My take-home message to you is not to give up if your delivery is poor at first. Keep practicing and you will improve. Even though I’m not as engaging or likable or convincing as, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and never will be, I have improved. More importantly, I feel less self conscious and thus more comfortable speaking on camera.

One bonus to learning to speak with more energy and confidence on camera is that it can help you in other stressful, speaking situations such as a job interview seminar or a TED talk. If you have an upcoming presentation, film yourself practicing your talk and try to apply some of the tips I cover in the video. I think you’ll find it’s well worth the effort.

Can Artificial Intelligence Help Scientists Be Better Communicators?

This post is part of a series about Artificial Intelligence (AI). In this concluding post, I explore the possibilities of AI to help scientists be better communicators.

As I’ve talked about before, many scientists have difficulty communicating their work in a way that is interesting and compelling, both intellectually and emotionally. This situation is improving, as more people recognize the importance of addressing the growing anti-science movement in the U.S. and the need for credible and articulate scientists to state the case for science. Once upon a time, scientists could safely remain in their ivory towers and talk among themselves about science. But no longer. Scientists are increasingly called upon to talk to the media (the AAAS has even published media interview tips for scientists), to testify before Congressional committees, to give public lectures, and to explain the “broader impacts” of their research on society. Consequently, efforts are underway to train the next generation of scientists to be better communicators (e.g., through academic programs focused on science communication). Science students today also seem to have a greater interest in developing better communication skills than when I was a student (just my personal impression).

Despite the advances in communication technology and emphasis on the new media to communicate information, though, I find that students still struggle with many of the same issues that plagued earlier generations when it comes to explaining science. And as the volume of science information grows exponentially, staying abreast of the literature and communication technology will be increasingly difficult for these future scientists.

The following are a few ways in which AI may help.

Designing a More Effective Science Message

One of the difficulties faced by a science communicator is how to design a message that resonates with a particular target audience. Few scientists are trained in communication theory and often rely on their default mode—explaining their work as they would for a technical audience. But what if the intended audience is not trained in science? How would you know if your message is appropriate in content and tone? AI might help, for example with the tone. The IBM Watson Tone Analyzer “uses linguistic analysis to detect three types of tones from text: emotion, social tendencies, and language style. Emotions identified include things like anger, fear, joy, sadness, and disgust. Identified social tendencies include things from the Big Five personality traits used by some psychologists. These include openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and emotional range. Identified language styles include confident, analytical, and tentative.” One of the intended uses is to optimize a message intended for a particular audience. A message that shows strong emotions and is less analytical in style may be perceived more favorably by the general public, for example. You can try it out by inserting a piece of text into a dialog box and get an analysis of the overall tone of the message as well as a sentence by sentence breakdown. There are links to additional information about what a particular tone conveys and how to improve the tone of a message.

Finding Appropriate Material for Your Science Message

AI may be particularly useful in reducing the time involved in finding material to include in a message as well as to locate media that can be freely reused (such as in the public domain) or purchased for a fee. I know I spend a lot of time searching for footage, images, animations and music that I can freely use in a science video. Because I can’t review everything available, I probably miss a lot of really good material. Search engines can locate photos or videos posted on the Internet based on provided keywords and criteria (e.g., size, resolution, format). However, I may still end up with thousands of candidate media, not necessarily ranked according to what I might need. Artificial intelligence systems may improve such searches. Google, which used algorithms (rules set by humans) in the past to respond to search queries, is transitioning to deep neural networks, which can learn to respond to new search queries and other tasks such as figure out where a photo was taken. Improvements in search tools could make finding the right media for a video or other information product much easier.

Creating Media for Your Science Message

Another way AI might help is in creating new media such as art or music that can be used in an information product. If you need a painting or jingle but are not artistic or musically inclined, you may one day be able to generate what you need using an AI system trained to do this. An example of artwork created by an AI system and a 3-D printer is a new painting by Rembrandt…or rather one created by a computer based on information from 346 of Rembrandt’s paintings. The video below shows the amazing process by which this 3-D painting was created:

There are also efforts to develop AI systems that can compose music. Google is apparently working on such a system, although not everyone is impressed with the result. If you want to play around with a music-composing system (based on language algorithms), check out Wolfram Tones. You can select a music style and change up the instruments and other aspects to create a unique tune.

Teaching Science Professionals to Communicate Like Normal People

Scientists are traditionally taught to maintain a serious demeanor when speaking to an audience of our peers so that we are judged to be credible sources of information. But this approach doesn’t work so well with the average person. By hiding our emotions, we can come across on camera as “robotic”, for lack of a better term. So it’s rather ironic to consider if an AI can help scientists be better communicators.

The computer, Watson, was trained to “recognize” different emotions displayed in a film and to assess and rank the ones that would work best in a movie trailer about that film. In the same way, an AI system could be trained to evaluate video footage showing scientists or students conducting their research or discussing the challenges they faced and select the best clips in terms of conveying emotion (enthusiasm, humor, curiosity, tension). But we don’t really need a computer to tell us which footage shows a particular emotion—we are much better at this than any machine or program currently available.

However, an in-depth analysis of a person’s on-camera delivery of information might be used to train science professionals to be better communicators. A video clip could be fed into a computer like Watson to be assessed on the basis of both content and tone. The speaker would be evaluated and scored according to various criteria. They could then try to alter some aspect of their performance and see how it affects their scores. This immediate feedback from a machine might be a faster, more efficient, and less painful way for someone to improve their communication skills. A problem could be identified early and  eliminated before it becomes a habit.

I’m not aware of any system that can analyze a video of a person speaking, but there are AI-based personality tests that use what someone has written (an essay, a letter). One example is the Watson-based service, Personality Insights. You can see the outcome for famous people (Gandhi, Barack Obama) or you can insert your own text. I gave it a try by inserting the text from one of my blog posts. Here’s what it said about me:

You are unconventional, somewhat indirect and skeptical. You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. And you are unstructured: you do not make a lot of time for organization in your daily life. Your choices are driven by a desire for discovery. You are relatively unconcerned with both tradition and taking pleasure in life. You care more about making your own path than following what others have done. And you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.

This analysis is eerily correct about some aspects of my personality. However, I got different results when I tried different text. For example, a second blog post generated the statement that my “choices are driven by a desire for organization”–opposite to the preceding analysis. Other aspects remained the same: authority-challenging, love of discovery, going my own way rather than following others. It’s necessary to provide sufficient text for a strong analysis, and the service warns you if you’ve given too little text. It also provides a more in-depth breakdown of the various traits that were analyzed.

As I said above, I don’t think there are any AI systems that can analyze a person’s performance in a video. However, it seems that this might be possible using a combination of existing AI systems such as the movie trailer and the personality test described above.


In this post, I’ve mentioned only a few ways AI might be used to improve science communication. Some of these systems, such as better search engines for locating media, are already available to us. Others will need more work and testing. I started this series with a hypothetical, futuristic scenario about a scientist using an AI system to create a video proposal. I don’t know if such a thing would ever exist or even be of widespread use in the scientific community. But it was fun thinking about it and learning more about AI systems.

This post is final part of a series about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential role in science communication. You can find the first post in the series here.